The Dandy: 75 years of comic mayhem

When this article (reproduced here in a shortened version) first appeared in Issue 3 of The Merseysider magazine, we had no idea that just a few months later the last print edition of The Dandy would be published. The publication of a superb book about the comic’s 75 years had prompted us to look back at The Dandy’s remarkable history. (Dandy artwork by kind permission of DC Thomson & Co.)

75 YEARS OF COMIC MAYHEM

Alan Gardiner enjoys a new book celebrating the history of The Dandy

The Dandy, Britain’s longest-running comic (it pips The Beano by seven months), celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. The full story of The Dandy’s remarkable history is told in a fabulous new book, The Art And History Of The Dandy, a lavishly illustrated volume which lovingly recalls the many characters who have graced its pages, from Desperate Dan and Keyhole Kate to Black Bob and Bananaman. The book is also a celebration of the artists and writers who created them, many of whom were with the comic for decades. It’s produced by the same team who a few years ago compiled the acclaimed History Of The Beano.

As the book explains, at the time of The Dandy’s launch in December 1937 the Dundee-based DC Thomson publishing house was already a big player in the world of comics. They published what were known as the Big Five, a set of adventure comics aimed at boys. The first was Adventure, which started in 1921 and was soon followed by The Rover, The Wizard, The Skipper and The Hotspur. These all had a strand of humour, which steadily grew until it occurred to RD Low, DC Thomson’s managing editor, that as well as publishing adventure papers that included some comic strips they should publish comic papers that included some adventure strips. By the late 1930s cartoons were flooding into Britain’s cinemas from Walt Disney and other Hollywood studios, and transferring the style of cinematic cartoons to the printed page of a comic was in some ways a natural progression.

The aim was that The Dandy would be the first of another Big Five, and The Beano followed in July 1938. The rest of the project did not go entirely to plan, principally because the Second World War intervened. The Magic was launched in 1939, but the wartime shortage of newsprint forced it to close. Other comics did though appear in later years, all now gone: The Beezer, The Topper, Sparky, Nutty, Hoot and others. When these comics folded, their characters sometimes migrated to The Dandy or The Beano. Beryl the Peril and Bananaman – both still running in today’s Dandy – started life in The Beezer and Nutty.

The first edition of The Dandy is reproduced in its entirety in The Art And History Of The Dandy, and it’s a fascinating read. As well as comic strips such as Korky the Cat, Keyhole Kate and Hungry Horace, there are a surprising number of adventure stories, including several cowboy tales (such as The Daring Deeds of Buck Wilson), reflecting the popularity of westerns in the cinema of the time. Some of the strips have speech bubbles, but there are others where the framed pictures have text beneath, and some stories consist entirely of text. The number of words massively dwarfs that found in comics today. The first edition also had a free gift (an ‘Express Whistler’), still a standard element in many comics. The Dandy actually stopped giving away gifts in 1940 before re-introducing them in 1960. Issue two had a ‘Jumping Frog’ and later giveaways included ‘Whirlybirds’ and ‘Thunderbangs’.

The Dandy and The Beano were an immediate success. Issue one of The Dandy sold 481,895 and The Beano’s first edition 442,963. Both comics offered a similar mix of humour and adventure, the comic strips evoking as they do today an anarchic parallel universe of the imagination that is somehow both innocent and subversive. The Art And History Of The Dandy sums up the comic’s enduring appeal: ‘The Dandy has never forgotten who reads it: children. For children, there is nothing to say that a cowboy can’t go to the moon, or that a cat can’t talk. In The Dandy, the normal rules of life are there to be bent…in the reader’s favour. Comics are an escape from rules, from authority; and there are just as many rules to be bent today as there were 75 years ago.’

The comic’s most iconic character, Desperate Dan, was in the first issue of The Dandy in 1937 and he’s still there today. It might justifiably be said that he’s Britain’s favourite comic character – there’s even an eight-foot tall bronze statue of him in Dundee, the city where he was created. He was invented by Dandy editor Albert Barnes and illustrator Dudley D Watkins. Barnes noted, ‘He is to be the roughest, toughest cowboy. He has to be the strongest man in the world: a man who can chew iron and spit rust.’ Although Dan’s supposedly a Texan living in the fictitious town of Cactusville, his strips have always had a surreally British context, a world of London buses and Royal Mail post boxes. He goes on holiday to resorts that resemble Blackpool more than they do Florida, and during the Second World War he joined the British war effort, knocking enemy planes out of the sky with a giant pea-shooter.

Dan’s favourite meal was of course cow pie, a dish which involves the entire animal, including horns and tail, protruding through the pastry. Readers were invited to join a Cow Pie Eaters Club, and by 1980 it had nearly half a million members. Sadly the emergence of BSE (mad cow disease) caused a change in Dan’s diet for a while. Then in 1997 Desperate Dan sailed off with the Spice Girls after striking oil and was temporarily absent from the pages of The Dandy. There was such an outcry, including a Bring Dan Back campaign, threats of boycott, and protests from as far away as Australia, Saudi Arabia and the United States, that our hero was swiftly restored.

The growth of The Dandy was slowed by the war, when it shrunk in size and was only published every other week (alternating with The Beano). Many of the regular DC Thomson staff served in the forces, but those who remained did their bit for the war effort by introducing a new strain of patriotism to the comic’s stories. A new strip, titled ‘Addy and Hermy, the Nasty Nazis’, lampooned Adolf Hitler and Herman Goering.

The end of the war ushered in a golden age for British comics. The Dandy reached its highest ever circulation in 1950, when sales averaged an incredible two million copies a week. The next decade saw gradual changes to the comic, with the disappearance of all-text stories. The most popular of these were converted to picture strips, including Black Bob, the champion sheepdog whose adventures with his master Andrew Glenn had started in 1944 (the story was inspired by the success of the film Lassie Come Home). 1960 saw The Dandy’s first ever price increase – it had been two old pence since 1937 (equivalent to less than 1p) but went up to 3d.

In the Sixties and Seventies The Beano and The Dandy became cool, read by university students and enthusiastically endorsed by alternative comedians; Eric Clapton was pictured reading The Beano on an album cover. Changes in social attitudes and behaviour meant though that the violence in the comics had to be toned down, with the disappearance of canings and parental spankings.

In more recent years The Dandy has had to respond to dramatic changes in the childhood environment. The addition of features on video games, films and television shows culminated in 2007 with a re-branding of the comic as Dandy Xtreme, published fortnightly. The first edition had Bart Simpson on the cover, much to the horror of traditionalists. DC Thomson were fighting to maintain their position in a very different marketplace, but in 2010 they accepted that the experiment had failed, reverting to a weekly comic simply called The Dandy.

Today the comic looks very different from 75 years ago, but Desperate Dan is still hanging in there, as are other long-running strips including Bananaman, Beryl the Peril and Bully Beef and Chips. The annuals published by DC Thomson are more traditional in style, and anthologies compiled from the enormous archive of back issues are regularly published.

The Art And History Of The Dandy has been put together by a team led by Morris Heggie, one of Britain’s leading comic historians and himself editor of The Dandy from 1986 to 2007. Not surprisingly, he says his enthusiasm for comics began in his childhood. ‘I grew up in the Fifties, which was a golden era for comics. We had just an hour a day on the radio for children and television was in its infancy, so comics were our main source of entertainment. You might only get one a week, but you used to pass them round and at the weekends you’d often be in your pals’ houses, reading comics. My favourite was probably The Beezer – I loved The Banana Bunch – but I read them all: The Dandy, The Beano, The Topper.’

Morris began working at DC Thomson in 1969. ‘Like many of the staff I joined straight from school. I started as a copyboy on The Rover, running up and down the stairs with reams of copy. Then I started writing storylines for other comics, including The Beano.’

Asked his own favourite Dandy character Morris replies, ‘Without any doubt that would be Winker Watson, who first appeared in 1961. He was a public schoolboy whose great boast was that he would never be caned. He was marvellously drawn by Eric Roberts, who’d been with the comic from the beginning and who was a huge figure in the history of The Dandy. In a single frame he sometimes had as many as ten different characters. I loved the world that was created in the strip – the friendly dorm, the midnight feasts, the wangles to avoid being caned by Mr Creep, the housemaster.’

As well as looking after the DC Thomson archive (classic strips are repackaged regularly for gift books and annuals), Morris still writes stories for the long-running Scottish Sunday Post strips Oor Wullie and The Broons.

The Art And History Of The Dandy is a wonderful celebration of the comic’s 75 years, and it’s clear that for Morris Heggie and his team producing the book has been a labour of love. They have a fascinating story to tell – if you can tear yourself away from the antics of Desperate Dan, Tin Lizzie, Corporal Clott and the rest, reproduced in all their riotous glory.

The Art And History Of The Dandy is published by Waverley Books

Dandy artwork by kind permission of DC Thomson & Co